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Council postpones vote on controversial license plate reader resolution

Tuesday, September 6, 2022 by Samuel Stark

Nearly 40 people showed up at the City Council meeting last Thursday either to voice their concerns or show their support for the re-implementation of the Austin Police Department’s automated license plate reader program, which has proven to be an incendiary issue for Austinites.

Reinstating the program would cost $114,775 and use around 20 cameras on police vehicles or in stationary positions. The resolution supporting its return, authored by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly with the support of four other Council members, states the technology would help increase investigative efficacy, particularly surrounding tracking vehicles that are stolen, connected to Amber and Silver alerts, or associated with other crimes.

Community members who opposed the measure were concerned license plate readers would contribute to the over-policing of people of color. Some expressed fears that the technology could be used to track women seeking abortions or immigrants living in Austin without documentation.

“Surveillance stands to unjustly track and pursue targeted and vulnerable people in our community. And we currently don’t have a robust police oversight act,” Rachael Shannon said. “Really, there’s no amount of privacy protection that justifies using (the license plate readers).” 

Community members on the other side of the issue felt the devices would be a cost-effective boon for an understaffed police department. Some speakers said the resolution contained enough oversight and restrictions to prevent privacy violations.

“It’s a way to be able to genuinely help people. And that’s what we’re about. This is a public safety issue. It’s a way to help people and especially the victims of those who are losing their cars (from) getting them stolen,” said Drew McAngus, a sergeant deputy constable with Travis County. 

The resolution has language that aims to ensure oversight of the devices. It states that data collected will be purged after 30 days and that APD will use the data only for investigating or prosecuting criminal activity, and not for collecting traffic fines and warrant roundups.

Toward the end of the Council meeting, Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon gave a presentation to Council members on the devices. He stressed that the department would not use the devices for surveillance but only to support investigations of crimes community members report to the police.  

“We need these types of tools. And given our staffing, it is important for us to leverage technology to be more effective in solving a crime, especially a violent one,” Chacon said. “We do not allow the system to be used for any type of warrant roundup or collections of past dues.” 

If approved, there will also be an auditing process, Chacon said. Every time someone accesses the database containing license plate reader data it will be recorded. APD’s Risk Management Unit will check the access log on a quarterly basis to ensure people are using it correctly and ethically, he said.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes asked Chacon whether APD would be obliged to hand over data if it was requested by a federal agency, such as ICE.

“If ICE, or any other federal agency, comes to the (Austin Regional Intelligence Center, managed by APD), if they have a criminal case and they request that information, we are compelled to provide that information,” Chacon responded. 

“This is a hard issue for the community because we know there are general trust issues and there are civilian concerns,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “So as we’re trying, as I think there’s perhaps a majority of this Council, to figure out how to do this and maintain it as an effective tool and force multiplier … we (will) figure out how to do it in a way that generates the greatest level of trust.” 

At the end of the meeting, Council members decided to postpone the vote until the next City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 15. 

Photo by genvessel, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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